Twenty Years of Tunes: Brian O’Hern & the Model Citizens Big Band Anniversary at Martyrs’ and Chicago Jazz Festival

by Gail Dee/We Want Music Without Borders

Sunday March 20 at 8 pm is the 20th Anniversary show for Brian O’Hern and the Model Citizens– Chicago’s swingin’ funky fun big band. Although their regular monthly home is at the Gallery Cabaret in Bucktown (every 3rd Monday) this show will be at Martyrs‘ where their journey began in 1996. The really BIG NEWS is after 20 years of “hangs” at Chicago’s smaller venues, the band finally gets the spotlight it deserves. They will be the opening act on the Pritzker Pavilion at the upcoming 2016 Chicago Jazz Festival.

Model Citizens Christmas show

Photo by Harvey Tillis

Not to imply that this is the first time at the Jazz Festival for the Model Citizens. In 2011 they played the smaller Jackson stage and many of the stellar band members (such as Mike Allemana, the guitarist; Matt Ferguson, the bassist; Pat Mallinger, tenor sax; Dan Trudell, the accomplished pianist who plays tuba for the MC) have headlined or been featured performers on the Pritzker for “Made in Chicago: Jazz” or the Chicago Jazz Festival. This year, however, will be the first time, Brian O’Hern, the Model Citizens’ quirky band leader and composer, appears on the Millennium Park stage with his big band.

The band performs original compositions by O’Hern as well as his arrangements for songs from Jimmy Webb to Queen. O’Hern throws a lot of musical curves at his versatile band. Brian says “We play straight jazz, out jazz, boogaloos, rock covers, waltzes, marches, church music, hora, bolero, rumba, calypso, corals, and anthems.”

Having been a mega fan of the band since 2001 (I actually received the “honored” mega fan button), I greeted the news of their upcoming Jazz Festival performance with a jubilant shout of glee and a bit of smug vindication. For years I have figuratively grabbed the ears of friends and strangers with my enthusiastic “You got to come and see this crazy big band. The music is a blast!”

Nobody puts Brian O’Hern and the Model Citizens Big Band in a “corner”.  It’s not like the cookie cutter “jazz orchestras” coming out of the “college tradition”. Every show is a surprise. After 15 years of attending the monthly shows religiously, I still don’t know what to expect when I go to a show.  While some of the songs have become familiar classics like “Helen’s Waltz Medley” with its’ sardonic lyrics “So put on your jazz slacks and go have a beer, ’cause Andy’s is the place for Jazz” and “Frugal Tall Hag” an exhilarating instrumental groove based vaguely on a reproduction of an old WW2 big band classic “Bugle Call Rag”, Brian is always experimenting with new material.  I actually attribute part of my breast cancer cure many years ago to these monthly sessions of funky guitar, blaring brass and sexy soulful saxes combined with hearty laughter. Who wouldn’t feel healed at the end of night hearing “Party like a Rockstar” (not the shop boyz) morphing into a rousing rendition of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” as the band does a second line thru the narrow bar’s audience?

Educated at Berklee College of Music, Brian says he wasn’t interested at all in “big bands” until he toured with Arty Shaw and Glenn Miller bands. Brian plays the keyboards, piano, B-3 organ and accordion. (He also likes the kazoo;-))   At 48 years old, he still has a baby face and a boyish charm in front of the audience.   As well as being a serious composer, he’s also a comedian and in the intimate club setting does hilariously outrageous things –like stripping down to his briefs to put on tights and a cape as perform “We Are the Champions” as a rockstar. (ok–i guess you had to be there;-).

Besides Brian’s brilliant and humorous compositions, the other reason for the success of the band is the top notch musicians who are the “Model Citizens”. Mike Allemana, Matt Ferguson (Von Freeman’s sidemen) Pat Mallinger (Sabertooth) are part of the original core of the band for 20 years. This Sunday the rest of the Model Citizens will be Natalie Scharf, Tim McNamera, Mark Hiebert, BJ Levy, BJ Cord, Scott Anderson, Raphael Crawford, Dylan Rehm, Gerald Dowd. Some MIA’s Model Citizens on Sunday are Dan Trudell; Dave Creighton; Anthony Bruno; and Dan Nicholson. Former notable members of the band include Andy Baker, Matt Wifler, Aras Biskas,Jim Pacelt and Carol Kagy (special vocalist).

Brian OHern Dec. 2015 poster The monthly Monday nights at the intimate Gallery Cabaret are an informal affair- sort of like studio sessions. Frequently the musicians are looking at charts for the first time which they attack fearlessly. It is part of the thrill for the regular audience members to be privy to the organic process of hearing how a composition develops. They hear an original song performed and a couple months later the song may appear again—maybe the arrangement has changed or the melodic line is repeated in another song. And it’s always brings a smile to hear the band members break into song calling on the Gallery Cabaret’s owner to serve them more beer “We’re the Model Citizens and YES, we are thirsty. Kenny can we have more beer?”

Brian says, “Our shows are loose, crazy and sometimes blue in humor. But underneath all that is a tight deepness performed by the highest caliber of players. I like to make it look as though it’s all happening at random when the truth is I spend hundreds of hours preparing the charts and putting all the parts together to make the whole. So by the time the show is on I just sit back and listen. My work is pretty much done.”

You can see for yourself Sunday at Martyrs‘ . 8 pm $20 cover–a dollar a year is a bargain for this BIG Band. Tickets  Since Sir Georg retired, the greatest band in Chicago. Celebrate their return to Martyrs’ where it all began 20 years ago.” –Ray Quinn

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